The outcome of the midterm elections will be determined by two numbers: Do voters care more about a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion or paying $5 a gallon for gas?
Just hours before the court’s decision in the Dobbs case was released last Friday, political pundits thought the shocking news of the day was President Joe Biden’s record-low poll numbers. He was underwater with voters by -17 points in the Real Clear Politics average (39 percent approve/56 percent disapprove), and the most unpopular president at this point in his term in modern polling history.
But Biden’s problems were pushed off the front page by the political avalanche unleashed by the court’s decision.
The passion and political energy behind the pro-choice movement are at a thunderous peak. If the midterms were held today, Democrats would almost certainly outperform their moribund polling.
But the election is not today. It is still four months away, and many things will happen between now and November 3. For one thing, voters will have four months of real-life experience in the post-Roe world.
The Democrats’ strategy for handling the court’s ruling has been evident since Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion was leaked two months ago: Keep screaming “Right-wing justices have outlawed abortion!” as loud as they can.
Is it true? Of course not. The Supreme Court did the opposite, getting out of the “outlawing abortion” business entirely. Abortion laws will be made by the states, not a handful of unelected judges.
But polls show a significant number of Americans incorrectly believe overturning Roe means abortion will become illegal across the country. Democrats have crafted their message to scare those voters into a panic.
Counting on less-than-informed voters to cast ballots based on less-than-accurate information is hardly a novel concept in American politics. (Some would argue it is the essence of American politics.) And Democrats are right that a vote cast by someone who thinks Justice Clarence Thomas wants to confiscate your condoms counts just as much as everyone else’s.
And so it is possible that members of the voting coalition that helped re-elect President Barack Obama in 2012 — single women, younger voters. and people of color — could be energized by those messages.
As a result, the obstacle to that strategy isn’t Donald Trump. It’s Father Time.
What are Democrats going to tell voters in swing states like New Hampshire, Nevada, and Pennsylvania when, after three months of marches and protests and overhyped “Handmaid’s Tale” rhetoric, the local Planned Parenthood is still doing business as usual? In that environment, will voters who aren’t already motivated by the abortion issue stay outraged and engaged?
And abortion isn’t the only thing the Supreme Court hasn’t banned. Inflation. Soaring utility bills. Double-digit home mortgage rates. Recession.
Like legal abortion, they are not going away between now and November, either.
Make no mistake: The Supreme Court decision will be a net benefit to Democrats, if only by giving them something — anything — to talk about other than the Biden presidency. Plus, pro-choice groups are fantastic at fundraising. Money is going to pour into Democratic coffers like protesters into Justice Thomas’ cul-de-sac.
But the odds that American politics will be frozen in time, in this moment of churning anger and passion, are very low. Between now and November there will be five more monthly reports on the inflation rate. There will be (at least) one more Fed interest rate hike. Moms and dads will make dozens of trips to the grocery store, and thousands of calculations about how to stretch their budgets to cover the higher costs of bread, bacon, and butter.
The Southern border will still be in chaos. Parents will still be looking for ways to make up the classroom instruction lost due to wrong-headed COVID restrictions and the vagaries of Zoom schools.
And Joe Biden will be just days away from turning 80.
And that is a number there is no way for Democrats to get around.